Cutting off King Henry’s head and other indignities; work for idle hands in 1620

Some long time ago I went to Hampton Court, where this fantastic painting hangs in a Long Gallery. C7867A71-260F-4985-929B-96E4A7E43772.jpeg

English School c.1545 Royal Collection (c) Her Majesty the Queen

It shows King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey and the Court arriving at the temporary wooden and canvas palace built to house him and his entourage on a field near Boulogne which became for a few weeks in 1520 the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the venue for the greatest diplomatic summit of all time between Henry and King Francis I or France, whose tent-city can be seen in the distance. The dragon flying overhead alludes not only to Henry’s Welsh ancestry, but to an actual firework released at the time, said to be disturbingly lifelike.

I was distracted though when I saw the original by the fact that Henry’s head has been cut out and sewn back in on a little circle of added canvas.


It’s done so well that you can’t see it in this photo, but trust me it’s there. There are lots of possible reasons for this. Perhaps the original wasn’t recognisably Henry-VIIIthy enough and was replaced by a more post-Holbein likeness. Famously, Henry and Francis were only just growing their beards, as a piece of competitive bonding, specially for the occasion.

It remained a mystery to me, til I was reading David Howarth’s article on Sir Anthony van Dyck’s arrival in England (Burlington Magazine October 1990; also Sir Oliver Millar ‘Tudor and Jacobean Paintings in the Royal Collection 1963 p56). Extraordinarily, the alteration was thanks to the Spanish Ambassador’s staff, who censored the painting with their daggers while they were waiting for their master to finish a long audience with King James I. A letter from Thomas Locke to Sir Dudley Carlton November 11th 1620 (PRO CXVIII, 71) says :

’The last weeke the Sp Ambr had long audience in the Gallerie at Whitehall with [The King] … that tyme his followers were in the next roome, where are many good pieces as your Lordship knoweth amongst others the siege of Kinsale and K:H8 his going into Bolloigne (wch is one of the best there) out of theise were many peeces cutt where the Spaniards received any disgrace in the first where a Spaniard is hanged at Kinsale and in the other the kings head cutt off… this is much spoken off.’

I wonder how soon it was mended and who by.

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